I remember the first time I walked into our house, after Katrina. It was December 26, 2005, and I'd put it off as long as I could. I went alone--I didn't want Kenny to go with me. He'd been there several times, and I needed to be alone the first time I saw it. And also, if we'd gone together, it would've meant taking Emmeline with us, who was only ten months old at the time.
I drove Kenny's car there--we still hadn't replaced my car--and I pulled up into the driveway with a sense of dread and of wanting to turn around.
When I put the key into the lock--for the first time in four months--it was the weirdest feeling that I can describe. After all, we'd only lived in the house for six weeks when Katrina hit. It was like coming home and walking into a stranger's house at the same time.
The first thing that struck me was the mold. I just can't even describe to those of you who've never seen it what that black mold does to your house after a flood. It was everywhere. Growing on the walls, on our furniture, on our books, on our clothing. It covered anything and everything--in some places, it was so thick that it completely covered whatever item it was growing on.
Looking past the mold, I saw the flood line--or, as Chris Rose described it, the brown bathtub ring that circled the house. Above it, mold. Below it, destruction.
The next thing that struck me was what used to be the berber carpet. It was dark gray and hard as a rock, and for a few moments, I was convinced that someone had ripped out the carpet without my knowing it and I was looking at the concrete slab. I knew that wasn't the case, but it was one of those crazy moments when your mind really can't believe what your eyes are telling it.
And then, there was the rat shit--everywhere, covering every surface that the mold hadn't. It was both dried and fresh--the dried stuff crunched under my feet when I walked through the living room, and, judging by the size of it, I was very much hoping that I wouldn't run into one of the rats producing it.
And finally, the coldness and dampness and darkness of the house struck me. It was one of those Decembers when it actually felt like Christmas, or at least as close to it as you get in New Orleans, with temperatures in the 50's as opposed to the 80's. In hindsight, a real blessing, as I know it smelled a lot different when K first visited a few weeks after Katrina.
I put on some rubber gloves and began wandering through the house in a daze, with a combined sense of both wonderment and dismay. How in the hell did the sofa end up over there? What is that thing? Oh, it's a watermelon. Eww. What is that thing? Oh, it's a book.
I soon realized that the three boxes I'd brought with me, hoping to fill with salvaged items, were a stupid idea. Kenny tried to tell me, but I had had a misguided sense of hope that it wasn't as bad as he'd made it out to be.
I went from room to room, surveying the damage. In our bedroom, I tried to open the doors of a chest, only to find that they were swollen shut. The closet looked like a science experiment. In Emmeline's room, the drawer fronts came off in my hands when I tried to open them. All that was left inside were neatly folded piles of sodden, mold-ridden lumps that had once been dresses and hats and pajamas.
In the kitchen was the aforementioned watermelon. I opened up the dishwasher, wondering what the dishes inside looked like, and quickly closed it. I opened up the cabinets and surveyed our pots and pans and the floodwater and other nastiness still in them. I threw up in the sink.
The contents of the one box full of things I salvaged? My childhood doll, although it was covered in mold and had had one of its arms gnawed off by a rat. Our wedding program, covered in mold. Our baby shower invitation, covered in mold. The afghan my grandmother knitted for me, covered in mold. Kenny's family photo album, covered in mold. Some crystal candlesticks from my other grandmother, covered in some weird rusty looking substance. (How does crystal rust?) A glass bowl from my sister. A silver bowl from my friend Janna.
A week later, Kenny and I went back and were able to salvage a few more things. But for the most part, we donned face masks, gloves, and boots and carted everything we'd once owned out onto the curb. At one point we took a break, sat on our front porch, and watched as a man pulled up, got out of his truck, and started rooting through our things while we stood there and watched him. I remember crying as he put Emmeline's moldy crib and a few other items in the back of his truck and drove off. I wanted to run after him and curse him for having the gall to pick through our belongings while we stood and watched--to me, he was no better than a grave robber. But instead, Kenny and I went back inside and continued throwing what used to be our things into garbage bags and continued carrying them out to the curb. And I still wonder about whatever little boy or girl may have ended up sleeping in that crib.
To this day, I'm not sure which would be better--to have your house remain and to have to throw almost everything in it away, or to have your house slabbed altogether. My friend Curtis, whose house was washed away by the surge, thinks that I'm the luckier one, because I at least had the opportunity to walk through my house and see my things one more time. But I'm not so sure, as I still think about things that we threw away and wonder, if we'd been more patient, more optimistic, and less devastated, if we could have salvaged some of them, if we'd tried. I know rationally that there was nothing worth saving, but I still sometimes wonder.
Katrina. The gift that keeps on giving in the form of memories. I don't spend all of my time thinking about it. There are a few days when it's far enough back in my mind that it barely comes to the surface. But it's always there. And besides, this is cheaper than therapy.